Given the controversy over the homosexual issue in recent years and previous experiences of tense interactions at NEA’s Annual Meeting and EXPO over the past 10 years, I was anticipating a rough 2 days at this year’s NEA EXPO in Denver. I knew I would be alone at the exhibit for periods of time as my only other help, Sissy Jochmann (Chair of the Conservative Educators Caucus) needed to fulfill other responsibilities in addition to assisting me at the EXGAY EDUCATORS EXHIBIT. I was happily wrong!
When I arrived to set up the exhibit on Monday, I found our assigned spot in the back corner. The backdrop curtain was wrapped around a high railing and our “NEA EXGAY EDUCATORS CAUCUS” sign was entangled in the curtain hanging by one hook. A rack of clothing belonging to the dress shop exhibit next to me blocked the view of our exhibit from anyone walking down the isle. I climbed up on a chair to unravel the curtain but could not reach high enough to re-hang our sign. A young man who working as a convention staff offered to help. He finished with a hearty, “God bless you!” My anticipation began to change.
We had a wide choice of materials to share, thanks to PFOX, Dr. Raney, Rosaria Butterfield, and others. Our materials addressed bullying in schools; children being raised in same sex homes; health concerns of homosexuals; results of research studies; and other related issues.
During the next two days, teachers trickled by our exhibit, most with expressions of puzzlement and some with disgust. A few stopped to talk about the issue. The question was usually, “So what is an ‘Exgay?’” Our answer, “A person with unwanted same gender attractions who does not want to embrace a homosexual identity. Here are the personal stories and research which support our viewpoint.” I would usually make it more personal making sure the person knew this was my own history. Conversation rarely went deeper than that. People would pick up a few items, especially “EXGAY IS OK” buttons or bookmarks and perhaps a few brochures or research articles. A few returned to purchase Rosaria Butterfield’s book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert.
The conversations that made our efforts seem worthwhile were few but important. Several openly gay people came by to respectfully engage discussion of recent events such as John Paulk’s article in Politico, “From Gay to Straight and Back,” or the dissolution of Exodus. Such conversations always attracted a group of listeners. We affirmed the right of people to make those choices but said, “We are here to stand for the right of individuals with unwanted same gender attraction to pursue other avenues besides embracing a homosexual identity and way of life. We are not here to coerce anyone to make changes they don’t want to make.” I also was able to explain that the caucus was founded when I realized that I could be forced to teach something on this issue that was contrary to my own personal experience. We also pointed out to several that CA and NJ now have laws that prohibit mental health professionals from assisting youth to resolve their same gender attraction issues in any other way than by embracing homosexuality and we believe that is a violation of our right to pursue happiness. Many were surprised that such laws exist and seemed to agree that it infringes on freedom, even when they disagreed with our views.
We had a libertarian teacher stop by to ask if we had an exhibit last year. He had missed us and was in the habit of stopping by for any new info. He affirmed our right to be there and was supportive of our theme of personal freedom.
After a group of people walked by, a convention staff young woman stopped and asked, “Tell me about this.” Before I could get out a complete sentence, she said, “That’s me.” I replied, “It was me, too.” As I explained a bit more, she listened briefly appearing to be cautious to avoid being seen at our booth. She took some resources and promised to watch the online video by FAMILY WATCH INTERNATIONAL and slipped away as she said, “I think God is talking to me.”
All of these conversations which had a measure of reasonableness to them, were well worth the effort and expense of being there. By placing ourselves in the pathway of people who have opposing views, we are showing that we are real people representing a view that is not malicious to personal freedom but rather dignifies individual choice. It is very important that we hold the place we have carved out inside the NEA in future years as long as we are able. We deeply appreciate the support of the many individual and groups who have provided us with materials and moral support through the years. And we welcome participation at future exhibits by anyone who feels the calling to be there or feels impressed to help financially.
Jeralee Smith is the Founder of the NEA Ex-Gay Educators Caucus